Students at Havasupai School in Arizona in 1899. Photo: Grand Canyon National Park's Museum Collection

Indian students win round in bid to hold government accountable

Indian students who are seeking to hold the federal government responsible for the quality of education have won an early round in their historic lawsuit.

The students, who all hail from the Havasupai Tribe, filed their case a year ago in January, just as the Donald Trump was about to take office. They are accusing the Bureau of Indian Education of failing to address their mental health, wellness and basic needs.

Judge Steven Logan has yet to rule on the merits of the complaint. But on March 29, he rebuffed the Trump administration's attempt to dismiss some of the key components of the case, known as Stephen C. v. BIE.

In the 13-page ruling, a copy of which was posted on Turtle Talk, Logan said federal law entitles the students to sue the BIE for not addressing their exposure to adversity and complex trauma. The Havasupai plaintiffs cited not only historical mistreatment of their people, but present-day issues like the legacy of boarding schools, involvement in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems and exposure to violence.

“This is a huge victory for Native students and their families because for the first time ever a federal court supports the idea that the federal government has an obligation to meet the mental health and wellness needs of students attending its schools,” Alexis DeLaCruz, a staff attorney at the Native American Disability Law Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Havasupai plaintiffs, said on Monday.

The mother of two of the Havasupai plaintiffs also welcomed the ruling. Her son, Durrel P., was sent out of state when the BIE school on the reservation said it could not accommodate his mental and special education needs, according to the complaint in the case. Her daughter, Taylor P., was victimized, physically and sexually, at the school.

“It means so much to me and my community that a federal judge has heard our voices," said Billie P. “I am hopeful that, at long last, current and future Havasupai students will get the support and resources they need to learn in school.”

Havasupai youth in 1938. Photo: Gibson / Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection / National Park Service

The decision wasn't a complete win for the plaintiffs, though. Logan dismissed five of the students because none of them are presently enrolled at the Havasupai Elementary School in Arizona.

Levi R. and Leo R. had gone to the school from kindergarten through eighth grade but their parents moved off the reservation so they could obtain an education in a public school setting, the judge noted. Similarly, Jenny A., Jeremy A., and Jordan A. have been sent to a BIE boarding school in Oklahoma by their mother because of the local school's "inability to meet her children’s educational needs," according to the complaint.

In the ruling, Logan said these five students "failed to meet their burden of establishing that they have standing to bring their claims against defendants."

But students like Levi, Leo and Jenny have little say in the matter. Once they reach the ninth grade, they have to continue their education elsewhere because Havasupai Elementary, which is located in Supai, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, only serves students from kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Younger kids have no choice either. Havasupai is only option on the reservation for elementary-aged students.

That's all the more reason why the students and the parents want to see improvements at the school. According to BIE data from school year 2012-2013, Havasupai ranked at the bottom of achievement levels and few gain proficiency in reading or math.

“Each day the federal government continues to fight this lawsuit, Havasupai children lose another day of school that they will never get back,” said Tara Ford, the clinical supervising attorney at the Stanford Law School Youth and Education Law Project, who is serving of counsel in the case.

The $1.3 trillion spending billl that was signed into law last month provides $579 million for elementary and secondary education programs at the BIE, which is part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The amount is nearly $59.2 million greater than the amount President Trump sought for those programs.

The bulk of the funding is distributed to BIE schools based on a funding formula that is part of the Indian School Equalization Program. The formula takes into account student enrollment, so smaller institutions like Havasupai receive fewer dollars.

However, in August 2002, the BIA finalized an update to program's regulation in order to ensure that "special education students are placed in the least restrictive environment possible and that placements are based upon the needs of students, not the funding formula," according to a notice published in the Federal Register at the time.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Cronkite News: Havasupai students sue over failures in federal education system (January 23, 2017)